Byatt on Modern Fantasy

In a New York Times piece, linked and commented on in Metafilter, author A. S. Byatt mourns the state of current fantasy literature, particularly Rowling’s Harry Potter books. Byatt refers to such books as “secondary secondary fantasy.” According to Byatt:

Ms. Rowling’s magic world has no place for the numinous. It is written for people whose imaginative lives are confined to TV cartoons, and the exaggerated (more exciting, not threatening) mirror-worlds of soaps, reality TV and celebrity gossip. Its values, and everything in it, are, as Gatsby said of his own world when the light had gone out of his dream, “only personal.” Nobody is trying to save or destroy anything beyond Harry Potter and his friends and family…. Ms. Rowling, I think, speaks to an adult generation that hasn’t known, and doesn’t care about, mystery. They are inhabitants of urban jungles, not of the real wild. They don’t have the skills to tell ersatz magic from the real thing, for as children they daily invested the ersatz with what imagination they had.

Essentially, what Byatt is saying, is that she doesn’t like Rowling’s books because they aren’t the sort of fantasy Byatt favors; she then uses her personal taste to bludgeon Rowling’s Harry Potter books, and the taste of those readers who do like them, condemning them as "secondary secondary" fantasy.

She’s missing something rather important. I too very much like Susan Cooper, Diana Wynne Jones (warning, Flash site), Tolkien—and a host of others like them, for instance, Patricia McKillip’s RiddleMaster of Hed, or Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain Chronicles . . . or, oh heck here’s a page I made. The books Byatt favors, and that I very much like, are derived from or influenced very strongly by medieval Celtic myth, and, in Tolkien’s case, Germanic and Finnish traditions.

Harry Potter is descended from an alternate tradition, that of Victorian children’s fantasy. The tradition includes the books of George MacDonald, E. Nesbit, and the "allegorical" member of the Inklings, C. S. Lewis. Victorian fantasy has as legitimate a pedigree as the Celtic stuff (which also has a Victorian heritage in the the Lady Charlotte Guest translation of the Mabinogion).

Were Byatt to compare Victorian fantasy to Victorian fantasy, she would do better to look to Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, or perhaps Garth Nix‘s Old Kingdom trilogy.

More Bronze Age Graves at Amebury

Remember the Bronze age archer found in Ambury, near Stonehenge? Wessex Archaeology has found six more bodies in the same general area. The radio carbon dating hasn’t been announced yet, but the archaeologists estimate that the bodies are from about 2300 B.C.E. That’s roughly between the end of the Stone age, and the start of the Bronze age. While this grave, which appears to have been closed then reopened for the inclusion of additional bodies, is not as rich in grave goods as that of the archer, the grave does contain four pots in the style associated with the Beaker Culture that flourished during the Bronze Age, some flint tools, a flint arrowhead and a bone toggle for fastening clothing. The combination of a Bronze age pottery style, with a multiple burial grave typical of the Stone age, suggests that the burial took place on the cusp of the two ages.

Pope Beatifies “Father of Cappuccino”

Marco d’Aviano, bron in Aviano, in the north of Italy in 1631, was friar from the Capuchin was beatifued for his efforts to rally Catholics and Protestants on the eve of the Battle of Vienna in 1683, a battle fought as part of an effort to stem Turkish incursion into Europe. He’s not yet been canonized as a saint, but this is the penultimate step in the process.

Aviano is also, on a less Catholic note, famed as the person who inspired cappuccino style coffee. Suppsedly, after the victory, the Viennese discovered sacks of coffee abandoned by the Turks (who imbibed enormous quatities of extremely finely ground coffee brewed in a early version of a drip pot). The Turkish coffee was too intense for the Viennese, who diluted it with cream and honey.

The resulting beverage was a brown colored liquid very similar Capuchins’ robes; hence, the Viennese named it cappuccino in honour of Marco D’Aviano’s order.

I’m not overly excited by cappuccino, though I like it. Personally I favor the carefully selected and roasted Hawaian coffees of Superbeans. I’ve never had better coffee, ever, and the service and choice can’t be beat.

What Used to be at the Iraq National Museum

This tour gives a glimpse of some of the artifacts previously on display; it doesn’t even hint at the items from other museums stored for safe keeping during the war, or the thousands of cylinder seals and cuneiform tablets, most of which have not been inventoried. Of course, even if they had been inventoried, it wouldn’t help much since the looters took or destroyed the computers and completely destroyed the card catalog which was the most accurate inventory.

40,000 Years of Human Endeavor Destroyed in Two Days

Teresa and Kip have said it better than I can. But I wanted to point to some more information about the tragic looting of Iraq’s National Museum, the world’s best collection, by far, of Mesopotamian artifacts. First of all, an enormous cultural loss for humanity could have been avoided, rather easily. It’s not like looting and collateral damage were new ideas; the art history and archaeological communities have discussed, written, and published their fears for quite a while. Even I posted about it.

Since 1922 Iraqi law mandated that Iraq has an equal share in any archaeological finds within Iraq. Most of those finds were in the National Museum. In fact, the majority of all archaeological finds made in the country since its foundation in 1920 were stored there. These include Iraq’s share of the royal burials of Ur, as well as thousands of unrecorded, un-imaged cuneiform tablets, with who knows what texts, laws, and records.

There’s a long history of archaeological piracy in Iraq, including sales on e-bay. In part this is encouraged by the embargo; people are selling anything they can for cash. So there’s already a system in place for fencing stolen archaeological treasures, those that survive after being looted.

And here’s what Rumsfeld has to say:

“The images you are seeing on television you are seeing over, and over, and over, and it’s the same picture of some person walking out of some building with a vase, and you see it 20 times, and you think, ‘My goodness, were there that many vases? Is it possible that there were that many vases in the whole country?’ ”

Rumsfeld’s attitude is barbaric, of course, as is his thinly veiled ethnocentrism. No, I’m not arguing that “stuff” is more important than human lives (though frankly, I know some scholars who would willingly sacrifice their own lives for a particular artifact’s life). But this tragedy could have been avoided, and it should have been. Rumsfield, Bush and their barbaric coeterie just didn’t care.

Catching Up: SF, Celtic Archaeology, and Space

Catching Up: SF, Celtic Archaeology, and Space

I know, I’ve been exceedingly delinquent regarding posting, but between teaching and dissertating, and tech editing, I’ve had no time for blogging.

So I’m going to post a bunch of very quick links, with almost no commentary. First of all, I’ve added a couple of links over there on the left. There’s Cronaca, from one David, who has all the markings of a medievalist. Then there’s the new SF and Fantasy category. It contains links to the Nielsen Hayden duo, Patrick’s Electrolite, and Teresa’s Making Light. They’re writers and editors, but I’ve been reading their blog since ConJose, so I thought I should link. Especially since entries like this on the dubiousness of saints imply a certain medieval tinge to Teresa’s writing. Then there’s Will Shetterly‘s blog Small Candle, Much Wind. Also there is a link to Diane Duane’s Out of Ambit blog. Now then; things I wanted to post about, but didn’t.

A new sort of Gaulish tomb was discovered at Gondole, near Clermond-Ferrand in central France, prior to the construction of a new highway. Inside the tomb were bodies of seven adult males, an adolescent, and eight horses, carefully arranged in a rectangle. The bodies, which appeared undamaged, were arranged with their heads to the south, looking eastward. The left arm of each adult was placed on the body before it. There were no grave goods. There are a number of interesting things about the burial, not the least of which is the ritual placement of the bodies. The horses are interesting too, given other instances of equine burials in this Gaulish territory.

Speaking of French archaeologists, Philippe Charlier, a French paleopathologist with degrees in archaeology and medicine, has studied Gaulish warriors from Burgundian graves. Apparently, one in ten Celts carried treponema, a bacteria related to syphilis. Several of the skeletons had hip deformities caused by riding, and many suffered from arthritis.

Over in Ireland, National Geographic reports on a decline in Gaelic speakers in the Gaeltacht. Perhaps recent efforts to translate the Quaran into Irish will help slow the decline of Irish speakers. And again, Irish Neolithic monument builders have proven to be clever computational astronomers. This isn’t exactly new, but it is interesting.

On South Uist, one of Scotland’s Western Isles, one of the outer Hebrides, Europe’s oldest known mummies have ben discovered, preserved in the Cladh Hallan quarry. They may date as far back as 3,500 years.

Over in Wales, Pembrokeshire native, archaeologist Dr Mark Merrony has followed in the footsteps of a nineteenth century antiquarian Richard Fenton, and found the remains of a large rectangular Roman building near Wolfscastle, Pembrokeshire.

And finally, there are these strange, but beautiful images from the Hubble of a dramatically erupting star.

Amebury Archer

Thanks to this story from MetaFilter, I’m elated to see new data about the so-called “Amebury Archer.” Last May Wessex Archaeology discovered the richest Bronze age grave ever discovered in Britain. The grave was discovered during a standard preliminary excavation of a future housing development, about three miles south-east of Stonehenge. Based on the physical attributes of the skelton and the goods buried with him, the 35-45 year old man was an archer, and possibly, part of the Stonehenge construction team. Shortly after the first grave was discovered, excavators discovered a smaller companion grave. The artifacts— well over a hundred of them, including three copper knives, two small gold hair tresses, gold earrings, two sandstone wristguards to protect his wrists from the bow string, 16 flint arrowheads and five pots, are amazing, as is the systemic nature of the burial. The grave dates back to roughly 2300 B. C.

One of the more interesting aspects of the burial is that analysis of the archer’s tooth enamel’s oxegen content and other data indicates that he was originally from Switzerland. This fact adds support to the common scholarly belief that Britain was settled from the Continent.

Today we’ve the first results of more detailed analysis, and the archer is definitely from the vicinity of the Swiss Alps. In addition, we now know that the second skeleton found at the site, that of a younger man, aged 20 to 25, is related to the Archer. It is likely they were father and son. Analysis of his teeth shows the younger man grew up in southern England but may have spent his late teens in the Midlands or north-east Scotland.

This find has enormous potential for learning about Bronze age life; we’ve barely tapped the surface of the data. It will certainly change interpretations about the relationship of Bronze age people to Stonehenge.

New Hubble Images of “Dumbbell Nebula”

Via, comes this story about the new Hubble images of the Dumbbell Nebula. The Dumbbell nebula, in our own Milky Way Galaxy, is a planetary nebula, named thusly because early telescope quality made even nebulae like this one ( the first ever discovered by Charles Messier in 1764) look like the fuzzy blobs of our own solar system’s planets. The gas and dust of this nebula are what’s lefft of a dying star, after it’s cast off the outer matter. The nebula, which looks a bit like a dumbell in ordinary non-Hubble images, is officially known as Messier 27 (M27). You might want to take a look at the rendered video’s here as well, available in high and low bandwidth versions.

You might also want to think back to this image of a star being born in galaxy M16.